Q: I really like cooking with peppers and always see different varieties on the shelf — but I only ever buy bell peppers and the occasional jalapeno. What’s the difference between all the peppers?
A: With their glossy-smooth skins, curvy shapes and intense colors from deep green to bright orange and red, peppers are beautiful. But it’s their range of flavors and heat levels that captivate cooks. While some varieties hit the palate like a bolt of lightning, others are mild-mannered and sweet, offering hints of spice and fruitiness.
Beyond good looks, peppers are packed with vitamins and antioxidants. Yellow and red bells are a great go-to source of vitamin C, which is vital in maintaining healthy tissues and a strong immune system. A half-cup of raw, red sweet pepper contains 142 milligrams of vitamin C (twice as much as an orange).
All bell peppers start out green. As they continue to ripen on the vine and become yellow, then orange and red, they pack in more nutrients. Brighter bells contain high amounts of carotenoids, which help boost immunity, fight cancer and heart disease and help protect eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration.
The hotter chiles contain many of the same nutrients as bell peppers, but in smaller doses. They’re terrific for boosting flavor in recipes without adding extra sodium or fat. The hot and spicy flavors also encourage slower eating, which can help dieters stay on track with their weight-loss goals. Capsaicin, the potent chemical responsible for their heat, even offers a few other health benefits. Eating hot peppers ramps up the metabolism, switching the body into fat-burning mode. Newer studies indicate that capsaicin may help lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels and may even stop the growth of cancer cells.
When purchasing peppers, look for firm glossy fruits that are brightly colored and feel heavy for their size. Store whole, unwashed peppers in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to five days. Scoville Heat Units (SHU) are given in order of heat level for each pepper to help you choose what’s hot enough for you. The heat of peppers ranges depending on weather conditions, soil, etc.
Bell: These come in a rainbow of colors and offer distinctive sweetness; they have no heat. They add sweet, juicy flavors to everything from pizza to sauces. Perfect for stuffing. SHU: 0
Mini sweets: Served plain or stuffed with dip, mini sweets make a great low-calorie appetizer. They are very mild with a satisfying crunchy bite, and have only 25 calories. SHU: 0-100
Anaheim: A sweet, bell pepper-like flavor with a little bit of heat. Anaheims have thick outer walls good for stuffing; dice them for salsa or add them to a stir-fry for a little extra heat. SHU: 500–2,500
Poblano: Because of its naturally thick walls and relatively mild flavor, poblanos are excellent for stuffing with beef, chicken, rice, cheese and other ingredients for a full meal. SHU: 1,000–2,500
Jalapeño: This fleshy, thumb-sized fruit has a crisp outer shell and adds a bright, forward heat to any dish, particularly if the seeds are not removed during preparation. Add to salsa for an extra kick, slice and use as a topper for a sub or salad, or add to baked, grilled or fried fish. When dried and smoked, jalapeños become the complex and flavorful chipotle. SHU: 2,500–8,000
Serrano: These dark green and red peppers are about twice as hot as jalapeños. Commonly used in salsas and sauces. SHU: 10,000-25,000
Habanero: A few slivers of this dazzling hot pepper add a splash of spectacular color and extremely spicy notes to fresh salsas and hot sauces. The chiles are commercially grown on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. SHU: 350,000–850,000
April Graff, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian at both Mankato Hy-Vee stores and can be reached at AGraff@hy-vee.com or call 625-1107 or 625-9070. Send her questions about food and nutrition, recipes, meal planning and healthy shopping.